Defeat in the Champions League this week may have been acutely unfortunate, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s pain in the wake of Manchester United’s exit to Real Madrid says as much about the manager’s record in Europe’s premier competition, as it did about the club’s disappointment. It is the Scot’s desire to improve on his two Champions League victories in a quarter century at Old Trafford that lies at the centre of the manager’s heartbreak.
“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” said assistant Mike Phelan after Tuesday’s defeat.
“I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”
Yet, Ferguson’s anguish was not only about one defeat, influenced by an over-zealous referee, but the realisation that time is running out to improve on a European record that includes one Cup Winners’ Cup and two Champions League victories.
After all, there is an argument that Ferguson’s European adventure has underwhelmed given the resources at his disposal. In an era of United dominance domestically and a period of Anglo-Saxon success on the continent, Ferguson has often said “we should have won it more”.
Two trophies and a further brace of defeats in the final is perhaps scant return for just shy of 20 seasons in Europe’s premier competition.
Indeed, United’s elimination at the round of 16, as against Real, has come as often as Ferguson’s side has made the last four, while the Reds have been eliminated at the group stage more often than they have secured the trophy. Ferguson’s base elimination stage is the quarter-final. Or to put it another way, Europe’s leading eight is the sum of Sir Alex’ parts these past two decades.
Those in charge of United’s marketing department spin a different story of course.
It is a cruel analysis of a man whose trophy count stands against few peers, although one that might explain Ferguson’s frustrated response in the past week. In the wake of Real’s victory, the 71-year-old blamed not only Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for United’s defeat to Real, but officialdom for robbing the club of two further tournaments over the past decade.
“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” said Ferguson of Nani’s 58th minute red card at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions. We’d have won two of them. I have no doubt about that.”
In 2004 José Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out in the round of 16 after Paul Scholes’ goal was incorrectly ruled out offside in a game mired by controversy. Dmitri Alenichev’s professional foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was ignored, before Francisco Costinha’s scored a debatable last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford to take the Portuguese through 2-3 on aggregate over the two legs.
“The decision of the Russian referee when they brought down Ronaldo who was right through and didn’t even book him,” claimed Ferguson. “They got the free-kick right after that. We would have won the European Cup that year. They got Monaco in the final, didn’t they?”
Porto went on to beat Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo La Coruña in the knock-out rounds before dismissing Patrice Evra’s AS Monaco 3-0 in the Gelsenkirchen final.
The other injustice, said Ferguson, was Rafael da Silva’s red card against Bayern Munich in 2010 for two cautionable offences. Harsh on the player, perhaps, but terribly naïve of the Brazilian too. Munich beat Lyon in the last four, before losing to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the final.
Fortune, though, has two sides and United has benefited from a slice over the years. Mehmet Scholl’s shot against the bar moments before United’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Or, perhaps, John Terry’s slip in the 2008 final shoot-out.
Not that Ferguson’s beef is with anything other than officialdom of course. And his frustration at not having achieved personal ambitions in the competition.
Given the tournament’s competitive nature Ferguson may never add another European trophy to his vast haul. After all, a golden period between 2008 and 2011 brought three finals, but only one victory with Ferguson’s side twice succumbing to perhaps the finest Barcelona team of all time.
Nor is the analysis of Ferguson’s record entirely justified. Since Ferguson’s first Champions League campaign in 1993 only Barça, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the competition more frequently. None has retained the trophy during the Champions League era.
UEFA’s decision to open up the European Cup to non-champions, while merging the old UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups into a single tournament, now branded the Europa League, has a created a far more competitive environment.
In another era, one where teams dominated in époques, Ferguson’s record may have been more impressive. After all, in the decade between 1970 and 1980 Ajax secured three European Cups in a row, Bayern repeated the feat, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each secured a brace back-to-back.
Nor has any manager bettered the Scot’s record during the modern era, although Mourinho may change that fact this season should Real win at Wembley in late May. In mitigation, few managers can match Ferguson’s 202 Champions League games spread over nearly 20 years.
There have been plenty of near misses too; those seasons when Ferguson’s side was just a shade short of the best. Defeat to Real Madrid in both 2003 and 2000 hurt, as did the semi-final loss to Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Indeed, Ferguson’s team in the four years between 1998 and 2002 achieved far less than the sum of its considerable talents.
Which, perhaps, is why the injustice of the past week has hit Old Trafford so hard. Ferguson is building a team better than many had believed, evidenced by a healthy Premier League lead. But it is in Europe that the standard is set, and the Scot’s side has now been eliminated in the group stage and first knock-out round in the past two campaigns.
“I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time,” says veteran Ryan Giggs of defeat to Real.
“But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. It was a proper European performance.
“The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. It was shock. I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.”
The disappointment will wear off though, leaving Ferguson with perhaps two more campaigns to add a third Champions League victory to his roster.
There are no guarantees though. Ferguson is acutely aware.